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Banning possession of extreme porn: UK consultation

The Home Office and Scottish Executive are seeking views on plans to make it an offence to possess images that depict scenes of serious sexual violence and other obscene material. At present such content is generally illegal to publish but legal to view.30 Aug 2005

"This is material which is extremely offensive to the vast majority of people, and it should have no place in our society,” said Home Office Minister Paul Goggins. “The fact that it is available over the internet should in no way legitimise it. These forms of violent and abusive pornography go far beyond what we allow to be shown in films or even sold in licensed sex shops in the UK, so they should not be available online either.”

Proposed law

The suggested ban would take the form of a new, free standing offence restricted to explicit pornography containing actual scenes or realistic depictions of:

  • intercourse or oral sex with an animal;
  • sexual interference with a human corpse;
  • serious violence in a sexual context; or
  • serious sexual violence.

According to the consultation paper, "serious violence" will involve or will appear to involve serious bodily harm in a context or setting which is sexual – for example, images of suffocation or hanging with sexual references in the way the scenes are presented. "Serious sexual violence" will involve or will appear to involve serious bodily harm where the violence is sexual.

The maximum sentence suggested is three years' imprisonment for possession, although other options are presented in the consultation paper. The current maximum penalty for publication may be increased from three to five years to maintain a distinction.

Current law in England and Wales

Extreme adult websites may be illegal under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and 1964:

“for the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect, or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

Publishing such an article or possessing it "for gain" carries a maximum sentence of three years. Possession alone is not an offence, unless a child (a person under 18) features in the offending material (in which case the maximum penalty is five years for possession and ten years if there is also publication or distribution).

Current law in Scotland

The Civic Government (Scotland) Act of 1982 makes it an offence to display obscene material or to have it with a view to its eventual sale. There is a three year maximum sentence. The term "obscene" is not defined; but the common law test to apply is whether the material is calculated to deprave and corrupt persons open to depraving or corrupting influences. Again, possession alone only becomes an offence if an under-18 is featured and the maximum penalties are as in England and Wales.

Overseas

The majority of western countries have controls based on distribution of material deemed to be obscene by the courts, similar to the current UK laws. Others have controls aimed solely at preventing children from seeing potentially corrupting material. However, the consultation paper notes: "We are not aware of any western jurisdiction which prohibits simple possession of extreme material."

Exceptions and defences under the new offence

Text or cartoons that depict the offending activities would not be banned, according to the consultation paper. It is also to be limited to explicit pornographic material "produced solely or primarily for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification." The consultation notes: "It is not the intention to impinge on the freedom of the media in respect of news coverage, or of analysis or documentary footage or real events, including atrocities committed in other countries."

Finally, defences would be included to protect those whose exposure to the material was accidental and those who had a legitimate reason for possessing it, such as the prosecuting authorities.

The Jane Longhurst Campaign

The consultation follows a meeting earlier this year between Home Secretary Charles Clarke and Liz Longhurst, who started a petition for legal reforms to ban violent internet porn after the brutal murder of her daughter.

Thirty-one year-old Jane Longhurst, a special needs teacher, was raped and strangled with a pair of tights by a male acquaintance in 2003. Graham Coutts, an amateur musician, attacked her just hours after surfing the web to feed his apparent obsession with necrophilia and asphyxial sex. Coutts stored her naked body for 35 days before trying to burn it in woods. He was convicted in February 2004 and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison.

Liz Longhurst welcomed the Home Office announcement.

“Over the last eighteen months I have worked hard to change the climate of public opinion through the Jane Longhurst Campaign by raising public awareness of the issue,” she said. "With the help of many friends, including MPs Martin Salter and David Lepper, we have lobbied the Government and collected over 35,000 signatures for our petition and I am hopeful of reaching a target of 100,000 signatures by Spring 2006.”

Comments on the proposals are sought by both the Home Office and the Scottish Executive’s Ministry for Justice by 2nd December.

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